From the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, March 9, 1998

Grafton documents "curious history"

By JoAnn Gutin

The Footnote: A Curious History, by Dodge Professor of History Anthony Grafton, has been getting press coverage that John Grisham might envy. In the past few weeks alone, the book been reviewed in both the daily and Sunday New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New Republic and Times Literary Supplement, to name only a few.

Why all this popular attention to a slim, scholarly book on an arcane subject?

The Footnote is a serious work of historiography that traces the growth of scholarly documentation from its origins in ancient church history to the present. It contains lengthy, untranslated notes in French, German and Latin. And it defends an idea that some scholars think of as old fashioned: that you can't write real history without using references.

The Footnote is also a witty and slightly subversive look at the uses to which scholars have put the innocent-looking small print at the bottom of the page. As a bonus -- and maybe this is the source of its popular appeal -- it provides an almost anthropological look at the culture of academia. "I do think the footnote is often the site of violence," is how Grafton puts it, adding with a mischievous chuckle, "We academics are a rather strange breed, myself included."

Footnote as insult

Grafton has always been a fan of the footnote. He recalls poring over footnotes as an undergraduate, trying to figure out how scholars went about doing their work. But it wasn't until 1991, inspired by an article on the demise of the footnote in the Times Book Review by historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, that it occurred to him that footnotes could be not just the tools of history but their subject. After a conference at Princeton on "Proof and Persuasion in History" and several years of research in the libraries of Europe, Grafton published The Decline and Fall of the German Footnote in Germany in 1995. Expanded, the book became The Footnote: A Curious History, in 1997.

One of the most engaging elements of The Footnote is Grafton's analysis of the footnote as insult. He admits a trifle sadly that today's footnotes tend to be more utilitarian than their 18th-century predecessors, simply recording what sources the historian consulted, in what archives. The irrepressible Edward Gibbon of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1766-88), who sometimes scolds his sources for their credulity, is Grafton's all-time favorite footnoter. "His footnotes are a kind of autobiography," Grafton says. But even minimalist footnotes can hold intrigue, drama and "the scholarly version of assassination," he writes. And if the violence is as subtle as the faint scent of bitter almonds that betrays the poisoner in old mystery novels, all the better.

Cf.: the stiletto

One popular modern technique, Grafton recounts, is citation of another scholar's work while, in effect, holding one's nose. The weapon of choice in this case is the deadly stiletto "cf." The simple meaning of the term is an innocuous "compare," but "at least to the expert reader," writes Grafton, it means "both that an alternate view appears in the cited work and that it is wrong." The British version of the technique, he adds, is to describe someone's research as "oddly overestimated."

Another technique of quiet violence takes place when the citing scholar simply ignores a colleague's work, implying that it isn't worth dignifying with a reference. This, Grafton suggests, is a regional variant. "Italians cite everything," he says, "so in Italy the devastating thing isn't to cite and criticize but not to cite at all."

Other national styles of footnoting emerged over the course of Grafton's research, along with theories as to how these differences arose. French scholars, he says, are famously lean on documentation. He argues that the Gallic style is partly attributable to a lycée system that stresses accurate paraphrase and analysis. Partly, though, "it developed in opposition to what the French thought of as 'malevolent' German scholarship."

Germans, for their part, have long been renowned for the encyclopedic thoroughness of their notes. "They give huge lists of secondary literature, complete with subtitle and publishers, and lots of other detail," says Grafton. "Of course," he adds, "they don't have the notion you have to do this with any material that isn't in German."

No alternatives

Grafton thinks that despite all their foibles, footnotes are here to stay--or ought to be.

"In the end, no matter how tedious these procedures are, there are no alternatives," he says. "Some of the controversies we have today -- the Seymour Hersh biography of JFK, for instance -- only crop up because people have so little idea of how you do historical research. " (Hersh, Grafton suspects, put too much faith in sources who had axes of their own to grind.)

Historians need the footnote, he says. "We have no other way of presenting the evidence, and if we don't present it, people have no reason to trust us."

That doesn't mean the form of the documentation will always be the same. Grafton foresees a time when, say, anthropologists' field notes will be posted in their entirety on the World Wide Web, giving readers a chance to see whether they agree with the ethnographer's interpretation of the data.

Yet if the success of The Footnote is any indication, the footnote will be around for a while.

"It's amazing for me to go into Barnes and Noble and see stacks of my book," says Grafton. And he admits that the high-profile, mostly glowing reviews are also gratifying. But he's not planning to get used to media attention.

"I can assure you," he says, "that the newspapers normally don't concern themselves with my books, and I'm sure they will return to their policy of benign neglect in the future."